The Nagara tradition of temple architecture: continuity, transformation, renewal

The Nagara tradition of temple architecture has been the predominant northern Indian tradition since its formative stages in the fourth and fifth centuries CE. A subtle architectural language was created, drawing on the imagery of earlier timber forms. The concept of a formal type was central, but the shrine types were not static and fixed. Temple architects developed increasingly complex designs through combinations of different types in composite arrangements, drawing forth new designs from old ones. Thus the tradition developed through a kind of sequential emanation, a pattern which resonates deeply with Indian religious and philosophical ideas. Theoretical texts (Vastushastras) associated with this tradition do not consistently mirror the types found among built examples, but the same emanatory way of thinking permeates the progressions of types that they put forward. These texts are not a constraint on design, often themselves being full of architectural invention, and acting as a framework and stimulus to further creativity.

Despite disruptions from around the thirteenth century there were vigorous periods of revival, even under Islamic kingdoms and empires and throughout the colonial period, with changing patterns of patronage. The tradition continues today, with a global dimension, practised predominantly by the Sompura community from Gujarat and Rajasthan. These traditional practitioners tend to be ignored by architectural historians and marginalised as an archaic anomaly by the architectural mainstream.

Temples:Texts:Practice. Left: Ambika temple, Jagat, c. 960 (photo Gerard Foekema); below, analysis showing one temple type projected from another. Centre: drawing of the ‘Hemakuta’ temple type, derived from the Samaranganasutradhara. Right: modern Sompura workshop (photo Megha Chand Inglis).

I make these observations as an architect and architectural historian, having long studied the varied traditions of Indian temple architecture with a focus on the process of architectural creation from which to reflect out on broader aspects. Latterly I have broached the canonical texts, working on a famous eleventh-century treatise in collaboration with a Sanskritist. We found that, by combining expertise in Sanskrit with knowledge of the relevant architecture, the Samaranganasutradhara could be translated both into English and into drawings. A new Leverhulme-funded project will allow such translation and analysis of the Aparajitaprccha, a key twelfth-century text, along with portions of its successors, including compilations in Gujarati by prominent twentieth-century Sompuras. Recent contemporary practice will be examined through oral history and archives. The team, including Indian colleagues, will survey many undocumented temples, pioneering digital scanning techniques to analyse measurement, proportion and geometry.

In these ways we aim to arrive at an integrated understanding of the Nagara tradition from its inception to the present day – its formal principles and patterns of change, its body of written theory, and its modes and processes of creative practice. Studies of revivals and reinventions of ancient artistic traditions in a postcolonial context tend to focus on the political implications of the renewal, taking the earlier tradition as a changeless given in little need of analysis, while studies of ancient traditions generally regard their later manifestations as an embarrassing postscript. By examining the transformations and renewals of an architectural tradition across a millennium and a half in India, we hope to show how past and present can be studied both for their own sakes and for their mutual illumination.

Professor Adam Hardy
Cardiff University